Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Well-Worn Faith: After Years of Use, a Prayer Book Recounts the Spiritual Life of Its Owner

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Well-Worn Faith: After Years of Use, a Prayer Book Recounts the Spiritual Life of Its Owner

Article excerpt

Ever since I first learned the Hail Mary, I have loved prayer. Perhaps Sister taught us the Glory Be first. It's shorter, more repetitious; if you know the sign of the cross, you're halfway there. But it's the Hail Mary I remember, specifically the pleasure of the word amongst. It was the mystical heart of the prayer for me--at least when I was six.

I also loved the hallowed in the Our Father, and that ignominious lurked somewhere among the stations of the cross.

I loved the heightened language of prayer. As I grew older and my prayer matured, I loved the place to which the heightened language brought me, a place where I felt transfigured, fed, guided, and brought closer to God. I've stayed, with greater or lesser success, as close as possible to this place throughout my life. I've filled a timeless space with my life story. I have a history in prayer.

For over 30 years, I've prayed the daily office in the Book of Common Prayer used in the Church of England (the Episcopal Church here in the United States). One of the nice things about the Church of England is that it knows good English when it hears it, and I love the cool, solid voice of Episcopal prayer. I need God's mercy, but I also need God's elegance.

Jeffrey Essmann is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerous magazines and literary journals.

In the 1980s, when I bought my first copy of the prayer book at a New York City Catholic bookstore in the Village, I was initially drawn to its quiet, Protestant good taste: an unassuming volume with a cover of fine-grain black leather, gilt page edges, and three sturdy black ribbons.

It was love at first sight ... and smell. That firm, clean smell of fresh leather would, I thought, be like praying inside a new car.

Time has taken its toll. I noticed a few weeks ago that decades of my thumb and forefinger turning the pages and depositing grains of New York grime has colored them mustard yellow at the lower edges and corners. There are random stains, including a partial fingerprint made in coffee. The bottom edges are so frayed and tattered, they seem more pirate map than prayer book.

I decided I should retire it before it dissolved in my hand, so I went to the publisher's website and ordered a nearly exact replica. But before I put the old one on the shelf, I wanted to have one more walk through it. I wondered if there were pages that said something about me, hinting at who I was and what I was doing as I moved among them day after day. Would the stains and fingerprints, the ragged edges, the creased pages, the torn ones reveal a spiritual history, an archeology of my prayer?

The pages--once crisp, translucent onion skin--have faded to pale ivory and now seem nearly damp to the touch. The gilded edges struggle on to little avail. Held in the light, they still manage a faint shimmer, but it's the luster of a bottle blonde. And while the leather smell is long gone, there simmers now among the pages something a little musty and sweet. When I dig my nose right in, I am transported for a moment back to my grandmother's house: There is a mantle clock ticking on the sideboard. There are the African violets.

One of the most distressed sections of the book is the Psalter. The pages of some of my favorite Psalms--2 (where God laughs), 45 (so writerly), and 139 (all about cosmic transparence)--bear wrinkles largely absent from their neighbors. And I seem to have accidentally dog-eared Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus prayed on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There's a strange pinch in the paper at Psalm 74, a rippled crimp near the top of the page, as if I'd been gripping it too tightly. It's an affliction psalm that starts off "O God, why have you utterly cast us off?" and pretty much goes downhill from there. There's a pretty bit toward the middle ("Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the moon and the sun. …

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